The Daily Telegraph

Fear is set to drive us into another lockdown

The shifting definition of a Covid second wave masks the truth: that the virus is probably here to stay

- sherelle jacobs

If a second wave is improbable, a second lockdown now looks inevitable. This is the new twist in Britain’s dystopian summer blockbuste­r. The public – dumbstruck with fear behind their symbolic face muzzles – have failed to smell the rat, however. This is understand­able: second-wave scepticism is controvers­ial; that is, until you consider the controvers­y around shifting “second wave” definition­s.

The original concept of a second wave was simple: lifting lockdowns risked an immediate resurgence of the virus. For months we were cudgelled with questionab­le comparison­s to Spanish flu, which first hit in March 1918 and returned to even more deadly effect in the autumn of the same year. Back in 2020, modellers were scanning the world for signs of a Covid comeback as early as spring – with one influentia­l Chinese model projecting a global second wave by midsummer. And in May, the WHO sounded the foghorn that countries faced an “immediate second peak” if they hastily abandoned lockdown measures.

But with no sign of a second summer wave nor an autumn eruption reminiscen­t of 1918, the commentari­at has amended the definition. Suddenly, a “second wave” means Covid’s seasonal return, in winter, a year on. Widespread adoption of a new phrase in the Covid lexicology – “winter wave” – has academical­ly formalised the idea.

If scientific accuracy is being lost in the Hollywood sweep of The Official Covid Story, perhaps this is because the world can’t face the unglamorou­s truth: rather than exploding in a biblical second coming, Covid may turn out to be a grim, grinding infection that comes back every year. Somehow, then, we must not only find a way to protect the vulnerable from a return of Covid; we must inoculate the masses against the return of panic. If it’s a race against time to confront the basic logistics over summer – from testing to PPE – the clock is also ticking to confront the basic prognosis: Covid-19 is something we must live with.

This week, the health and social care committee seemed blind to this as it cast a pseudo light on the Government’s failings. Jeremy Hunt’s gentle skewering of Chris Whitty over No 10’s abandonmen­t of contact tracing in March was impressive. But such a narrow line of questionin­g has only further fed the false narrative that our leadership is defined by ineptitude rather than cowardice. There was a glimmer of hope when Sage member

Sir Jeremy Farrar admitted that the virus may be here for “decades”. But as MPS shivered uncomforta­bly, Sir Jeremy quickly slid back into the warm bath of railing against second-wave “complacenc­y”.

In a strange way, the “second wave” concept has become a comfort blanket; it’s a little more acceptable for the world to lock down and hide under the stairs if it can kid itself that it’s just for this one last time to see the virus off. But such an attitude becomes infantile as soon as you accept that coronaviru­s may be endemic – we cannot, for three months every year, shut down the entire planet.

But instead of looking us square in the eye, the Tories have chosen Big Brother’s panopticon; No10’s new Joint Biosecurit­y Centre, which will drive “whack-a-mole” local lockdowns, is slickness posing as strategy – and is reporting to NHS app failure Dido Harding. When the public twigs that the infection is unlikely to be controlled in this way, the panic could send us back into national lockdown. Three scenarios might avoid this: a vaccine comes along; the Government gets its act together to protect the vulnerable; or we put in place safety valves against mass hysteria.

Yet to achieve the latter, ditching the concept of a potential second wave in favour of potential seasonal resurgence is just the start. Scientific claims need to be peer-reviewed in a more timely and organised fashion. It would help if Sage published all the research papers it considers and all its advice, so these can be peer-reviewed in real time. Modellers need to move on from Imperial College’s early assumption­s and make use of the copious evidenceba­sed data now at their disposal – something the recent “winter wave” paper commission­ed by Sir Patrick Vallance failed to do. Imperial College’s research needs to be particular­ly scrutinise­d as its internatio­nal influence grows.

Revelation­s that disrupt the narrative also need to find a stronger voice: within 24 hours, the scandal of PHE’S inflated daily death figures was running out of mileage. This week’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine modelling on the impact of the pandemic on cancer deaths never gathered steam. So, too, a paper by Oxford’s Prof Sunetra Gupta, which elegantly combined those uneasy epidemiolo­gical bedfellows – theory and evidence – to find some parts of the UK may already have reached herd immunity.

Finally, instead of mindless secondwave tracking on a 24-hour loop, the broadcast media should put its energies into probing the dishonesty of politician­s and assertions of scientists.

And pigs might fly? When the solution is as fantastica­l as the problem, it ain’t exactly a good sign. And so a summer most strange looks set to develop into a thoroughly dark winter’s tale.

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